Art history + digital = my experience at THATcamp CAA

Last week I was lucky enough to attend THATcamp CAA. As a historian who studies visual culture, I’ve mostly come at art history sideways: I’ve encountered the methods of art history, sat in several survey courses and seminars, but haven’t had the chance to be in a room, listen, and engage with art historians on issues of pedagogy, research, preservation, and the discipline itself. This is why I jumped at the opportunity, and the two day program covered a lot of ground and gave me a lot to think about.

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker from Khan Academy, and the creators of Smarthistory, kicked everything off with a phrase that kept popping up over the two days: “do-it-tocracy,” or a sense of making things and getting that knowledge out to that broad audience that’s interested in art history (or any field for that matter). This notion particularly came out in Nancy Ross‘ session on creating an art history survey textbook in an hour. The flurry of scholars dividing up periods and subjects before bending furiously to the task of pulling together resources and information was the most fun part of THATCamp for me due to the time constraints and the mission of making something. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. It was also a great effort for a field that hasn’t encouraged much collaborative work thus far, on an accessible platform (blog) that didn’t require a vast amount of technical knowledge.

This leads me to an underlying question throughout the sessions: how much coding/technical knowledge is needed for a digital art historian? In one session on the digital skillset for graduate students, the question of code fulfilling a language requirement came up. Sara Ickow’s concerns largely revolve around how much coding or programming skills could be required—her point that familiarity rather than fluency is enough is a start. As someone whose phd program requires a full-year course in digital theory and practice, I would say that moving beyond familiarity to a degree of fluency would be more beneficial. I’d like to stress degrees of fluency here: I make no claim to programming expertise, but being able to parse HTML, CSS, XML, PHP, and other coding languages (while acknowledging that I have a lot to learn) gives me a base to speak from, a digital fluency, which can help me do the kinds of collaborative work that many THATCamp participants expressed considerable interest in pursuing. Unlike reading proficiency in a language, digital fluency is hardly static as the technologies change and there’s always the scramble to keep up.

But I’d encourage more of a push beyond familiarity to getting a bit into the weeds of some aspect that’s particularly relevant to one’s research or pedagogical interests. There’s no need for scholars to only use tools, and the expertise of an art historian in the development of tools is a perspective that is greatly needed and can yield fantastic results, as the Ukiyo-e project, Digital Mellini, Holocaust Geographies, and Mapping Gothic France projects so amply showed. I think a point that came up in a teaching with games session ties in well here: there’s no need to swallow the entire pill of digital. Work with the relevant bits, and collaborate with others. Leave the rest for other projects or later discovery. The energy of thatcamp participants, from graduate students to well-established professionals, showed me that there is a strong sense that now is the time for art history to embrace digital tools and methods to broaden both the kinds of art historical knowledge created and the reach of that work to a broader audience.

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